Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Out West Day 34...Monday, August 24, 2009...The Final Stretch

I am up really early this morning...on the road at 6:00AM. Last year, I drove an extra hundred miles or so longer than whatI've got today...and it took me eighteen hours. Not today.
My first "break"...as I leave Albert Lea, I'm not enveloped in "pea soup" fog like last year...it's clear sailing through Minnesota, around Minneapolis and across the river into Wisconsin. This being Monday, I don't hit "Wisconsin Dells" traffic like last year, so I'm rolling south.
Into Illinois and through Rockford (home of my now-former company's LATO operation... lots of fun times in Rockford). Approaching Chicago, traffic is moderate (as opposed to last year's snail's pace) and I'm through the city in nothing flat.
Soon, I'm across the border into Michigan...unlike last year, no major construction delays...everything is breaking my way.
At 6:30PM, I'm pulling into my driveway...I've "shaved" almost six hours over last year's pace.
Now in my house, I note with pleasure that there are no unpleasant surprises like last year...nothing stolen, nothing moved, nothing damaged. My friend and neighbor, Spike, has done her job and done it well...and for that, I thank her.
The cats are glad to see me...at least so far as they are capable of that...as cats.
It is good...VERY good...to be home again.

Out West Day 33...Sunday, August 23, 2009...Devils Tower

For once, I'm up early this morning and on the road at sunrise. Devils Tower is about eighty miles west of Gillette, so I should be there early.
This part of the drive is familiar from last year...off the Interstate and thirty miles or so of winding two-lane road. Again, I am impressed by the fact that you don't really see Devils Tower until you're almost on top of it..then you come around a bend in the road and...wham!...there it is. The road only circles up the west side of the Tower from the south, so the views are somewhat limited...as a result, the angle of the sun is not good for photos today. Undaunted, I shoot half a roll of color and a full roll of Black & white.
On my way out, I stop by the prairie dog village for a few more photos...then...back on the road. My goal is to get out of Wyoming, through South Dakota and into Minnesota before stopping for the night...I want to be home tomorrow night.
Driving is good...light traffic...overcast, but no rain. I see some billboards promoting a little town just over the border into Minnesota..."Stop here", they say..."plenty of rooms in a friendly town". Around 8:00PM, I get to this town...and...it's very disappointing. Hotels are scattered far apart...no restaurants (just fast food joints) and, most disappointing of all, not a single friendly "tavern" in sight.
I decide to press on for another hundred miles to the city of Albert Lea...it's going to be late when I get there, but that's a fair trade-off for more civilized accommodations. At around 10:00PM, I exit the Interstate and find a Days Inn...and...right next door, another Applebee's...I'm in luck. After I check in, I walk over to Applebee's and...I'm in luck...it's late-night Happy Hour...$2.00 drafts. And...still more luck...appetizers are half off. A platter of sliders and a few drafts later, I'm feeling relaxed again. Another night in a bed...what a luxury. I sleep well knowing that tomorrow...I'll be home again.

Out West Day 32...Saturday, August 22, 2009...Heading Home!

I'm up early this morning, but I'm having trouble getting motivated to pack up. I make coffee and cook myself a full breakfast...eggs, bacon and toast.Lots of dew this morning, so my tent fly is wet...that goes over the picnic table to dry out. Roll up the sleeping bag, liner and pad...into the Escape. I use one of my "Sham Wow!" towels to wipe the moisture off of my tent before taking that down and stowing it away.
It's cloudy this morning, so my rain fly has not dried off after a few hours...so...I wipe it down by hand. My plan was to be on the road by 7:00 or 8:00AM but, before I know it, it's almost 10:30...no early start today.
Now I'm on the road heading north back into Yellowstone...between construction and heavy traffic, it's slow going. By the time that I get to the East Entrance (Exit) of Yellowstone, it's almost 1:00PM...camping near Devils Tower is looking doubtful.
Exiting the Park, I'm now going through the Bighorns, last of the mountains for this trip. They are fairly steep...lots of those pleasant vertical drops. I drive through the town of Cody (founded by Buffalo Bill), then I'm in some very steep canyons before gradually descending near a huge man-made lake. I have never driven through this part of Wyoming...it's gorgeous. Signs along the way tell me the age of the exposed rock formations...the Cambrian period, the Pennsylvania period...pretty ancient.
Around 6:00PM or so, I'm coming to the town of Gillette, and I figure that it's time to stop for the evening. From my room at the Days Inn, it's only about a mile or so walk to the "Prime Rib Restaurant and Blue Martini Lounge"...my last meal of Western beef for awhile. The restaurant is nice...friendly bartender, chat with the owner about wine, have an extra-dry Stoli Martini with anchovy-stuffed olives...very relaxing. Given that I'm siting in a restaurant called "The Prime Rib, I figure that's the best thing to order...I'm right...it's perfectly cooked and really, really good. They have an excellent wine list...everything is well chosen, and I get a bottle of 2005 L'Ecole #41 Cab....I had this wine at the Winery in Walla Walla last year, so I know that it's good...it is!
I leave stuffed, happy and with that particular feeling of satisfaction that only comes with a meal of beef. There's an Applebee's next to my hotel, so I stop in there for a few beers...the perfect "cap" for a nice evening. The bartender, Meg, is friendly and her "pour" is most generous. I also meet a guy named Steve, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is up here working on the big coal-fired generating plant here in Gillette. I saw it on the way in, and it's a impressive sight...train car-loads of coal for as far as the eye can see. I ask Meg about the economy of Gillette...what do they do here? I figure that maybe there's a college here...nope...here, it's all about mining, oil drilling and power generation. Meg points out that they are even reopening some old uranium mines in anticipation of more nuclear power plant construction in the future. I've passed a number of wind generating plants along the way but, it should be noted, when the blades aren't moving, they are not producing any power. Steve and I spend a fair bit of time discussing the finer points of Alabama BBQ...open pit vs. closed pit, pork vs. beef, ketchup-based sauce vs. mustard-based, hickory vs. oak...it doesn't matter because they're all good.
And, soon, I'm back at the Days Inn and climbing into a real bed again...boy, that feels good. I'm out like a light.

Out West...Day 31...Friday, August 21, 2009...Preparing to Head Home

OK...so I'm over a month late with my last two posts...time flies when you're having fun (and at home).

My last day at Grand Teton National Park was pretty low-key. I slept in, had a light breakfast and read until lunch time. Weather was still good...sunny and warm.
After a lunch of kimchi noodles, I set about packing up to leave tomorrow morning. After thirty-one days on the road, I'm ready to start heading home. If I can get an early start, my plan is to camp near Devil's Tower on the other side of Wyoming and get some early morning photos before getting back on the road.
Once my preparations are completed, I head out to buy ice and take a few more photos. Back at camp, I'm cooking up the last of some pork with Thai Green Curry...a few Margaritas and a few glasses of South African Cab.
I build my last campfire as darkness falls. The sky is clear again, and the stars are brilliant...from my seat around the fire, I'm looking right at the Big Dipper. Soon the last of my logs are glowing embers, and it's time for bed...tomorrow is going to be a long day.